By Veronica Nkwocha
Ane stirred the dough half asleep and lost in thought. She rubbed one eye and continued the round and round movement increasing her motion when she saw her mum Ela walk in. It was almost dawn. Someone dragged a metal bucket across the cement floor, its scratching sound jarred her to a permanent wakefulness, she stood up from the three legged stool. All around her, the sounds of morning rituals hummed like a faraway thought intruding into the tranquil silence that greeted her an hour earlier. It was as if her neighbours in the set of rooms spread out like a square box, their doors facing the middle courtyard were being chased by an invisible task master.
Across from her, Mama Ezinne smacked her only child lightly across the bottom,
“Hurry now, go brush your teeth den bath before dem full everywhere. I no wan late.”
Ezinne, seven and perpetually tardy dragged her feet and her mother sighed in exasperation. She didn’t want to miss the earliest bus to her shop. Johnny the barber swung the metal bucket as he returned from the communal bathroom.
“Fine fine Ezinne, ya mama say make you quick, no waste time you hear? Mama Ezinne e do, no beat am again, I don talk to am.”
“Morning o my brother, I greet o.”
Ela clapped her hands soundlessly and squeezed her face. She whispered to Ane,
“See that shameless woman, dey talk to man wey tie only towel this early mor mor. Na so, next thing na to carry belle mtcheew.”
Ane stirred furiously, angry with her mother but she looked away to hide her feelings.
Mama Ezinne called from across her front door,
“Mama Ane, good morning, abeg when the puff puff ready, send Ane, I go give you the money when I return from shop.”
“Good morning my sister” Ela answered with a beaming smile, “no problem o.”
She lowered her tone and spoke to Ane,
“Her lazy pikin no fit come collect am abi? No go anywhere, when dey ready, dem go come collect am.”
“But mama, we need their market, what if we end up not selling everything?”
“Dey speak your oyibo dere, ‘What if we end up not selling everything’”, she mimicked with a nasal tone.
Ane stirred. The dough was coming along nicely. She sat next to the fire as her mother scooped tennis ball sizes from the large vat and tossed them in the pan of oil. They sizzled and began to puff. She picked up a few once they were ready and wrapped them in paper and made to hurry towards Ezinne who had just returned from her bath and was entering their rooms. Her mother shrieked.
“Abi craze dey worry you? Sit down there!”
She sat, on the three legged stool, one cheek of her bottom at a funny angle. She daintily tucked her school uniform underneath her and put the puff puff back with the others that were slowly building up in the tray.
“Ane! Ane!!” Mama Ezinne called from across the room.
She pretended she was stirring the vat of dough.
“Send ya pickin. Ane never finish, no vex abeg”, Ela replied.
Ezinne dashed across hopping, her hair uncombed, and one of her sandals missing.
She smiled at Ezinne who smiled back, both of them wearing wide grins.
“Morning ma, morning sis Ane”, she said hopping wildly bearing the food in her small hands.
She tripped over as the sandal came off in her hurry to get back and fell flat spilling the puff puff on the bare cracked cemented floor. She began to cry as the sand coated them like a sprinkling of sugar.
Johnny, now dressed rushed across and helped her up as Ela and Ane crowded around her.
“No worry my pikin, Ane abeg bring another one for dem. I go pay. No cry Ezinne.” He consoled her escorting her to her mother’s room once Ane had given him the replacement.
“This ashawo, hey! See as the man just enter their room piam! Papa Ezinne, where you dey oh, my eye no fit see dis kain nyama nyama.”
“Mummy, I’m almost late. See you later”, she whispered overwhelmed by a creeping feeling of claustrophobia.
“See you later my dear. You don pack your own?”
“Yes ma”, she answered sliding out the single main entrance worried her mother might change her mind and assign one more task.
He was out almost immediately, whistling as he passed by Ela.
“God bless your market my brother”, she said watching him from the corner of her eye as she arranged her merchandise in a display case, the glass steaming with the warm buns.
“You too my sister, you do well.” He answered a jaunty spring in his step.
She stared at him wistfully, her look lingering for longer than socially appropriate.
Mama Ezinne watched the interaction and smiled. Ela was a widow. Maybe she could play matchmaker. Johnny was also a widower, his children grown. Her husband would return from his job as a long-haul truck driver later in the day and she could conscript him into helping these two.
She hurried off with Ezinne who was shedding like leaves from a dried up tree in the harmattan breeze. The clasp of her school bag became undone as she tried to put the strap across her chest like a sling. It turned upside down and the contents fell, first an exercise book, some sheets of paper then a text book. She didn’t notice and carried on walking until her pens and rulers clattered to the ground. Mother and daughter turned to pick them up, the former scolding loudly.
Ela’s disgust was in full gear now. They were blocking the entrance and she was running late for the vantage spot where her puff-puff usually disappeared quickly, gobbled up by workmen on their way to their day labourer jobs. She hissed and exclaimed,
“Ah mama Ezinne, this your pickin too lazy mtcheew! Dey do like Agric fowl wey wan faint. Abeg shift make I pass.”
“Who you dey insult? Eh? You dey craze!”
“Who dey craze”? Ela quickly retorted.
Ane almost ran smack into the two women, she had forgotten her transport fare and was rushing back to pick it up.
“Mummy, is enough!” Ane shouted.
“You dey insult me, your mother?”
“Mama Ezinne, what is it now?” Ane asked.
“No vex Ane my daughter, your mother just dey insult me and Ezinne, wetin we do you?”
Before Ane could answer, her mother grabbed her ears and pulled her along exiting the building.
“Mummy”, she said in tears, “why are you so terrible to these people? Wait, I have something to tell you” she said pulling away and wringing her hands.
They were under the mango tree adjacent to the building. Ezinne and her mother disappeared from sight chasing after a bus that barely stopped.
John rushed out of his shop which was a room at the side of the building.
“Mama Ezinne, you forgot to drop the key for your husband.”
He ran towards her and collected it and went back into his shop.
Elahi put down the display case she had on her head a minute earlier.
“Mummy, these people paid my WAEC fees. Mama Ezinne and her husband saw me crying one day about the problem and decided to help. I begged them not to tell you because I was ashamed. I knew you didn’t have money and I lied that a charity decided to help those who were struggling. Even the rent that landlord said they didn’t increase for our room because we are long time tenants is a lie, they contributed together with bro John to make the balance. Bro John is Mama Ezinne’s relative not her boyfriend. They’re new in the building maybe that’s why you didn’t know all these.”
“Chei!” Ela exclaimed putting both hands on her head.
“I have to go now, I’m already late for school.”
Ela had tears in her eyes. She went about the business of selling her wares with a long face.
“Smile Jesus loves you” a stranger called across to her from a passing vehicle.
She sold everything and stopped to pick up some supplies for the following day’s buns. She added some fruits and a small doll with a pretty pink dress.
Ane was at home when she walked in.
“Ane, abeg help me go and greet Mama Ezinne, say you don tell me everything. I go come greet am myself, make I bath first. Please my daughter, okay?”
Ezinne and Ane were looking through a pile of socks wrapped in cellophane paper when Ela knocked. Mama Ezinne let her in and sat down.
A repentant Ela began in a tremulous voice,
“Forgive me Mama Ezinne, e get as this life be. Person wey be my help na so I come dey throw way, devil come dey cover my eye. Thank you my sister, na God go reward you.”
“See this your daughter Ane, good heart. Just exercise patience, you hear? I know say e no easy. Only you, two children already dey for boarding house for secondary school plus Ane. E no go tey dem go grow for you by God’s grace.”
“Amen my sister. Ezinne, come here, you be better pikin you hear? See wetin I bring for you” she said passing on the presents.
Ezinne turned to look at her mum who nodded.
“See my doll baby” she said excited.
She and Ane started fussing over the clothes and the miniature shoes and fiddling with her tightly coiled hair.
The two women smiled. Mama Ezinne cut up the fruit and they shared laughing as Ezinne tried to feed the new addition to the family whom cheekily she named, baby Ane.
Image from here: © Debbie Behan Garrett Various antique to modern Black dolls in my collection/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Black_dolls.jpg / CC-BY-SA-3.0